9 June 2003
A museum for migrantsFiachra Gibbons- The British come from all over the world. There should be a national institution to celebrate that fact.
There is a tumble-down house just off Brick Lane - where the balti belt of London's old East End is studded still with the odd surviving bagel bar, pie and mash shop, and Irish lock-in bar - that holds the secret to a holy grail the great museums and stately homes of this country have long been searching for. It is the trick of how to get anyone through their doors other than the white, middle-class tribe that likes to buy fridge magnets and loves anything to do with the Tudors.
The crumbling house on Princelet Street is the grandly named Museum of Immigration and Diversity, a place as poor as the people whose stories it seeks to tell were when they arrived here. Unlike the corner shop, that great immigrant entrypoint, this house in which French, Yiddish, Somali and Bengali have all been spoken is rarely open. You can inspect the old synagogue in the back garden during Refugee Week later this month, but after that it takes patience and careful planning to see its displays of battered suitcases.
Eight out of 10 of us have roots elsewhere - if you go back far enough - so a proper national museum of immigration seems like an obvious idea. But when it came up in a quiet corner of the Guardian Hay Festival recently, the arts minister Baroness Blackstone - who had just delivered a lecture on the need for the heritage industry to embrace diversity - was visibly taken aback. Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, frankly panicked.
"We can't have museums for every Tom, Dick and Harry. We can't afford any more flops,"' he said.
Before you get your Macpherson PC-meter out and find Thurley - the brightest star in the museum firmament - guilty of thought crime, his comments were born of deep frustration. Museums are, just as he says, "
Matthew Evans, the former publisher ennobled before taking on the museums quango, Resource, was privately furious, we were told, having led a curiously Garboesque campaign for the cash. So disillusioned, infact, he became a Labour whip in the Lords. Museums will now die, some of them hastened towards an inevitable end, others wantonly.
But even in such straitened times, why is a museum - a living one, one concerned with something that changes Britain by the day and goes right to the heart of who we are now - such a bad idea? Whose heritage is it anyway? Look around a tube carriage in London and ask yourself who the British are - and what will they be in 2020, when London may well surpass New York as the planet's melting pot?
The reason so few immigrants, or their children or grandchildren, are interested in "our heritage" is that they have no stake in it. Everyone yearns to be part of a greater story. But there is no place to hop aboard the great clattering roller-coaster of British history if you can't dream yourself into the court of horny King Henry. What better, more hopeful way of affirming your place here than through the Windrush of immigrant experience? A1l of us, Dane, Angle or Jute, had to get here somehow. Immigration is, in fact a patriotic act, a sacrificial gesture of faith in Britain and its future. The more so because no one becomes instantly British, as immigrants seem to become instantly American or instantly Australian in their more soluble pools of identity. Brutishness is an altogether harder pill to swallow, and one that is sometimes only truly offered to the second generation.
Maybe we need more than a museum - we need a redefinition of what the words British and immigrant mean. We look back at those once unwelcome migrants - the Romans, Normans, Norse and Anglo-saxons - to define what the first Britain was. Only when we weave in the French, the forgotten Dutch, the Germans, the Jews, the Irish, the Indians, the Afro-caribbeans, the Chinese, the Turks, the Russians, the Africans and everyone right down to the last Albanian who came to Britain clinging to the undercarriage of a Eurostar train, will we see the carpet of many colours that a New Britain will become.
What we now need is a British history told through its amazing ability to accept; the story that wi11 also be its future - the immigrants. This is something only the BBC can do. After Simon Schama, and the ratings boon of Great Britons, this is the real, nation-building storythe corporation was created to tell. The stories of arrival from Caesar and before are there: they await their teller.